We've asked experts what foods kickstart our overall health and help us snag better sleep, score radiant skin and silky hair, slim down and boost our energy. Read on for their best advice.
We know the most effective way to upgrade our health is to improve our eating habits, but big dietary changes can be intimidating—which is the nice way of saying “hard to stick to,” right? But, as it turns out, small steps can make a big difference.
“You can change your health by your very next meal,“ says Natasha Turner, a naturopathic doctor and author of The Hormone Boost. So take a look at what you’re eating on a daily basis and evaluate whether you’re reaching your nutritional quotas. “I recommend a diet that’s 35 percent each protein and carbs, and 30 percent healthy fat,” says Turner. That means 20 to 30 grams of carbs, 25 to 35 grams of protein, 10 to 14 grams of fat and four to 10 grams of fibre for the average Canadian.
Turner cleans out her pantry and resets her diet about every four months: at the beginning of the year, and at the start of spring and fall. This involves doing a clean sweep of products with undesirable ingredients (think hydrogenated oils, added sugars and simple carbohydrates) and swapping out low-nutrient items with better-for-you picks, such as buckwheat for regular pasta, quinoa for white rice and plain yogurt for the flavoured version.
“More important than the calorie count is the source of your calories,” says Turner. “If you eat the right foods—at the right time, in the right combination—it creates a positive response that will improve energy and sleep, increase metabolism and help shed a few pounds, and improve your appearance.”
Catch more z's
From skipping breakfast to loading up your dinner plate, the choices you make during the day can influence the quality of slumber you have at night. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine last year found that eating less fibre, more saturated fat and more sugar is associated with lighter, less restorative and more disrupted sleep. And, says Turner, timing matters: “You should eat within an hour of waking and stop eating two hours before bed.” When choosing what to eat, remember that a good night’s sleep begins the moment you step out of bed—so start the day by feeding your brain the nutrients it needs to thrive, like a protein- and fat-rich omelette with chicken sausage or a green juice, she says. You should also slot in a late-afternoon mini meal that contains protein, healthy fats and fibre to help stabilize cortisol, the stress hormone.
For dinner, consume some starchy carbs such as quinoa and legumes to boost your serotonin levels, which can help your body shut down for a sound rest. If you need a nighttime hit of melatonin, reach for a handful of walnuts—they’re a good source of the sleep hormone and are also chock-full of magnesium, which lowers cortisol levels so you can relax. “Your body thrives on routine. It’s not only important to eat every three to four hours; the key is to have a meal at approximately the same time every day,” says Turner.
What to eat for better sleep
Tart cherry juice: This is a natural source of melatonin, which aids in regulating the sleep cycle.
Ricotta cheese: Full of whey, it lowers cortisol and can help send you off to dreamland.
Watercress: This peppery green is rich in iodine and supports a healthy thyroid, providing energy during the day and improving mood for a more restful sleep.
Pumpkin seeds: Packed with tiny but mighty tryptophan, they’re calming and promote relaxation and sleepiness.
Slim down for spring
"Come spring, many people completely eliminate carbs from their diets to drop weight fast. But this deficit can elevate cortisol, the stress hormone, and decrease serotonin, which is vital for appetite,” says Turner. Instead, pick the right type of starchy carbs, such as black beans or lentils, and include them only in your evening meal. Be sure not to skip breakfast, even if you don’t have a big appetite in the morning. And the secret to preventing overconsumption at night is to eat a late-afternoon meal containing a protein source, which creates a sense of fullness.
“Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet with plenty of plant-based foods while eliminating refined foods is the key to weight loss—plus better skin, sleep and energy,” says Dr. David Jenkins, a professor in the departments of medicine and nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. A 16-year study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year found that making small, consistent changes to the types of protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods we eat might have a big impact on long-term weight gain.
What to eat for weight loss
Scallops + shrimp: These shellfish offer a good dose of protein, which can curb appetite. They also have lots of iodine, which boosts thyroid function.
Homemade iced tea: Forget the sugary version; brew a combo of green and lemon-ginger tea bags that’s brimming with antioxidants—minus the empty calories.
Asian pear: With a whopping 10 grams of fibre per pear, this fruit takes time to digest, so you’ll feel full longer. And it boosts the same hormone that causes fat loss when you exercise.
Seeds: A combo of chia seeds, shelled hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds—packed with protein, fibre and essential fatty acids—help keep you satiated.
Snap up more energy
To put a spring in your step, swap your double-shot latte for clean, energy-boosting foods. This means reducing your sugar intake as much as possible—cutting out table sugar, watching for hidden sweeteners on ingredients lists and limiting your use of honey or stevia—because its temporary jolt is always followed by a crash. “The key to harnessing more energy is to balance your blood sugar. When these levels are controlled, your concentration is improved, you make better decisions and you have more energy,” says Adrienne Dall’Antonia, a registered dietitian in Burnaby, B.C. Skipping meals, going too long without eating and consuming empty calories can also lead to a lethargic state. If you constantly suffer from low energy, “a blood test can check thyroid function, vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies. Thyroid issues can be addressed with medication, and B12 and iron levels can often be improved with changes to diet,” says Dall’Antonia.
What to eat for an energy boost
Fennel: Antioxidant-rich and a source of folate, this veg can help prevent fatigue by warding off anemia.
Arugula: This strong-flavoured green is high in fibre and helps stabilize blood sugar, which keeps you alert.
Avocado: Bursting with heart-healthy fats that may keep energy steady, it aids in warding off low blood sugar.
Asparagus: It’s full of vitamins A and C that can build new oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Topical tonics can work wonders on your face and hair, but locking in bright skin and glossy tresses starts with your diet. “The body-food connection is linked: A nutrient-dense diet can improve, protect, repair and stimulate our overall beauty by moisturizing the body from the inside out,” says Joy McCarthy, a certified holistic nutritionist and author of Joyous Health. If your meals contain lots of processed foods, you’re missing out on key vitamins and antioxidants that can positively impact your appearance. Instead, eat inflammation-fighting ingredients rich in omega-3s, such as salmon, walnuts, chia seeds and avocados—they’re packed with good fats that protect and naturally moisturize skin and hair. Along with vitamins A, B, C and K and iron, they also boost collagen, which adds strength and radiance.
What to eat for shiny hair and radiant skin
Rhubarb: This rosy plant is a great source of lutein, the antioxidant that safeguards skin.
Raw nuts: Almonds and walnuts are excellent plant-based sources of protein, an essential building block for hair.
Dandelion greens: Rich in vitamins A, C and K, these bitter greens stimulate digestion and are a great power washer for the kidneys. (Proper digestion can help break down the nutrients that contribute to healthy skin and hair.)